Marc Valens has spent the past half-century building the Moondance Ranch on a piece of property in Beatty in Klamath County, near where the Bootleg fire began.
Valens was planning to celebrate the ranch’s 50th anniversary this year. Instead, he and his wife will spend it cleaning up debris left behind after the fire ravaged the property, destroying what Valens spent the last five decades building.
“It’s my life’s work. It’s what I’ve been doing for 50 years,” Valens said. “It’s where my heart was.”
The day the fire started, July 6, Valens was 80 miles away in Medford for a doctor’s appointment. He was looking forward to celebrating his wife’s 70th birthday that night when the ranch’s caretaker sent him a photo of the encroaching flames.
“I just packed up and ran,” Valens said. “I could tell from the photo this is a monster already.”
In the week since, the area scorched by the fire has doubled, then doubled, then doubled again. Tuesday saw more limited growth, at least compared to previous days, due to a smoke inversion that “put a lid on the fire,” according to Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“The fire didn’t have clear air,” he said. “The smoke layer moderated the fire behavior.”
Still, the blaze had left more than 212,000 acres blackened in Klamath and Lake counties by Wednesday morning. It was the largest of more than 60 fires burning across the American West, including 15 in Oregon and Washington that had burned more than 265,000 acres as of Wednesday morning. The blazes across the Northwest mark an early start to the wildfire season as the region has been wracked by drought and heat waves, which have left forests exceptionally dry.
Kauffman said firefighters were concentrating their efforts on the Bootleg’s southern flank, where most residences were located, including Valens’ ranch in Beatty, a community of around 100 people. Other small towns nearby include Sprague River, Bly and Chiloquin.
On the eastern edge of the fire, much of the fire line was unstaffed, he said, because the wildfire was too unpredictable to put crews right up against the line. In those areas, firefighters were lighting back-blazes and digging control lines well ahead of where the fire was expected to go so it would have less fuel when it arrives.
More than 1,300 firefighters were battling the blaze, and evacuation orders remained in effect for communities in Klamath and Lake counties. But evacuation orders were decreased Wednesday for some residents, allowing them to return home with the understanding that they may have to leave again soon if fires threatened their properties.
Much of Oregon has been in some level of drought this spring, but nowhere has the water shortage been worse than Klamath County, where federal regulators have shut off irrigation from Upper Klamath Lake to farmers in the region.
The lack of precipitation has also led to an increase in fire risk for the entire state, exacerbated by heat waves and strong winds, made more likely by climate change.
Dozens of evacuees have made use of an American Red Cross shelter at the Klamath County Fairgrounds where volunteer Darrell Fuller said many who have had to flee the flames are feeling “lost.”
“The most difficult part for people here now is just not knowing if they have a house to go back to or not,” Fuller said Tuesday. “And we don’t know when they’re going to be able to get that information because the fire is still uncontrolled and growing.”
At a nearby impromptu animal shelter, Rose Beardsley, a volunteer with Klamath County’s Community Emergency Response Team, said the organization has been helping care for pets rescued from the fire, including supplying their evacuated owners with collapsible crates and animal food. A local veterinarian is volunteering her time and providing animals free medication and vaccinations, Beardsley said.
Two other organizations, Southern Oregon Emergency Aid and Project Spirit, have been driving livestock trailers into the evacuation zones to rescue large and small animals from the fires. Beardsley said the groups have been locating families with dogs who are still in the evacuation areas and transporting them to safety.
“We’re shooting from the hip and learning as we go,” Beardsley said. “But pets are a very big part of families, and this has made things a lot easier for our evacuees.”
A team from the state Fire Marshal’s Office, meanwhile, is working to protect homes and other buildings, especially along the fire’s southern edge. Nearly 2,000 structures were under threat.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 21 homes had been destroyed and another one had been damaged, according to Jennifer Case, a spokesperson for Bootleg fire operatins. Case said 54 minor structures such as garages and outbuildings had also been destroyed, and five others had been damaged.
Officials on Wednesday said they were working on a full accounting of the damage.
Valens didn’t have to wait to learn what became of his ranch.
When he first got word that the fire was approaching his property last week, he rushed to the ranch and worked until dark moving equipment to safety. His wife and their next-door neighbor drove through the night to help, and the group spent the following day packing what they could into trucks.
As they worked, Valens said the air grew smokier and they watched as trees lining the mountaintops became engulfed in flames, burning like torches against the sky.
The next day, a U.S. Forest Service worker called Valens and told him that he had to “get out now.”
Valens was taken to the ranch for an hour this past Tuesday by a forest worker to survey the damage. He lives in Ashland with his wife but often spent time at the ranch enjoying the quiet meadow and views of nearby mountains and wildlife.
When Valens was allowed to visit the site, smoldering remains, stretches of scorched earth and piles of twisted metal were all that was left where a log cabin, a house and an airplane hanger once stood.
The ranch’s caretaker, Frank Smith, was able to rescue his two dogs, but he lost everything else he owned to the fire. Valens’ wife, Anne Golden, started a GoFundMe page to help Smith.
Recovery will be difficult for Valens. At 72 years old and living with cancer, he said rebuilding the ranch to what it was before the Bootleg fire is impossible.
“I don’t have 50 years left,” Valens said.
The Log fire: A new fire started burning Wednesday six miles northeast of the Bootleg fire. By Wednesday afternoon it had grown to 2,800 acres and was at risk of rapidly expanding because of weather conditions and dry fuels. Firefighters were working to stop the fire from growing to the east.
The Grandview fire: The blaze started Sunday northeast of Sisters and doubled in size by Monday morning. It had burned nearly 6,000 acres by Wednesday morning and was 10% contained.
Residents of Culver in Jefferson County were told to immediately evacuate because the fire was threatening homes in the area. There is a temporary shelter at Sisters Middle School for evacuees, and the Deschutes County Fairgrounds is accepting animals who need shelter.
Nearly 700 firefighters from Benton, Columbia, Lane, Linn, Marion, Umatilla and Yamhill counties were assisting with the fire.
Because of two fires in central Oregon — the Grandview and Darlene fires — the Central Oregon Fire Management Service announced Tuesday evening that all campfires would be prohibited in the Deschutes National Forest, Ochoco National Forest, Crooked River National Grassland and Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District. There are no exceptions for developed or hosted campgrounds.
On Wednesday, the agency expanded those restrictions to prohibit all commercial and industrial activity on forestlands in the area.
The Darlene fire: The fire started east of La Pine about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and less than two hours later it prompted Level 3 (go now) evacuations.
The blaze grew quickly to around 600 acres, but firefighters had been able to get a containment line around the blaze, according to La Pine Rural Fire Protection Fire Chief Mike Supkis, who called the operation a “great success.”
However, the Central Oregon Fire Management Service said on Wednesday that three homes, one RV and 11 other structures were destroyed Tuesday.
Gusty winds and low humidity were expected in the area Wednesday and Thursday, which could potentially create conditions for starting new fires or spreading existing ones. On Wednesday, crews spent most of their effort addressing spot fires that started up, and reinforcing lines around the fire.
The Jack fire: The fire has burned in Douglas County since July 6 and is now 15% contained. As of Wednesday, it was burning at nearly 13,800 acres. Residents of the Dry Creek community, as well as several Forest Service campgrounds in the area, are still under Level 3 evacuation orders. A portion of Oregon 138, from Steamboat Creek to milepost 155, is also closed because of the fire.
The Bruler fire: The fire was first reported Monday afternoon in the Willamette National Forest and drew quick attention due to its location — within view of Detroit, which was stricken by fire last September.
By Wednesday afternoon, the fire was estimated to be about 90 acres. Crews and aircraft were working to slow the fire growth, Forest Service officials said. The fire wasn’t threatening any communities or structures.
“This fire does have the potential to spread and the forest is very dry,” said Nikki Swanson, Sweet Home District Ranger. “The safety of the public and the firefighters is our first priority. We’re in the process of closing several roads and trails to ensure firefighters can work efficiently and that the public remains safe. This will be managed as a full suppression fire.”
The public was asked to avoid the Middle Santiam Wilderness, the Old Cascade Crest Loop Trails (Swamp Peak and Gordon Peak), and Forest Service Roads 11 (Straight Creek Road), 1161, 1133 and 1012.
Nearby, communities are still rebuilding and recovering from the devastation of the Santiam fire, which scorched more than 400,000 acres last year and destroyed 1,500 structures, including the large swathes of Detroit and Gates. The Santiam fire killed five people and was not fully contained until December.
The Game Hog Creek fire: The fire has been burning since July 3 in the Tillamook State Forest. It was quickly contained at 6 acres, officials said Wednesday, but firefighters were monitoring it with daily patrols because it was burning in hard-to-access terrain.
Strong winds Tuesday evening caused the blaze to jump containment lines, however, and it had spread to roughly 70 acres by Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday evening, the Oregon Department of Forestry said while the fire remained uncontained, the spread had largely been stopped at about 70 acres, and that smoke was expected in the area overnight, but officials do not predict the fire will grow significantly.
More than 100 firefighters were working the blaze, according to forestry officials. Drift Creek and Idiot Creek forest roads were closed along with the Fear and Loaming mountain bike trail.
— Catalina Gaitán, Kale Williams and Jayati Ramakrishnan